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How five vivid arts projects offer up hope for repair and resistance

Swartberg House in the Karoo, designed by Jennifer Beningfield, Open Studio. Richard Davies

Review 2016: This has been a year most of humanity would like to forget with war, disasters, racism, sexism and, especially in arts and culture, the deaths of revered icons. But it is also in the arts and culture where people look for and find hope. The Conversation Africa has asked a number of our contributors to give us five books, records, buildings, works of art and so on, in their field that made a difference to them in 2016. Here is architecture scholar Hannah le Roux’s year in review.

In an el Niño year that started in the high thirties, it seems that the works that have held my interest share a theme of global impact. The five vivid projects that come to mind all link how we build, experience and consume in space to the consequences of these ways.

They make it clear that it is no longer a marginal question to ask how to live on this planet and the consequences that holds for people close and far from us. Specifically, they come out of a questioning of the devastating impact of colonial cultures on the New World, and in different and beautifully constructed media, propose ways to structure acts of repair or resistance into our personal and professional positions.

1. UrbanNext

UrbanNext is a website with sound ambitions to create a community of self reporting urban practitioners, particularly around the challenging issues that hold interest of architects looking at trans-disciplinary and transnational issues. The site is linked to the most courageous of architecture publishers, Actar, who work out of Barcelona and New York. It has a youthful freshness that crosses between architecture, urbanism, technology and ecology, with a fair amount of content sourced in Africa as well as cities in crisis, such as Detroit.

Experts on architecture, urbanism and technology, like architect Mitch McEwen, feature on UrbanNext. McEwen Studio

It carries good video clips narrated by some of the more thoughtful people in this field, including Mitch McEwen, Anupama Kundoo, Keller Easterling, Jean-Philippe Vassal and Amelie Klein. Many are people with whom I have recently been in touch in the course of other projects, and this made for a good sense of the growing connectivity that transcends our specific locations.

2. Extraction

A similar sense of the world shrinking and moving south in its orientation came from the Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Amongst many great shows, I was moved by the installation of the Canadian contribution on the bare ground between the French, English and Canadian pavilions.

The team of “EXTRACTION” has landscape architect and Harvard academic Pierre Bélanger as the curator. They detail the consequences of the more than 10,000 mining projects carried out around the world by Canadian firms. The powerful message of “EXTRACTION” lay in the way it presented the content, set against a huge array of sandbags that held the crushed ore needed to produce a gram of gold.

There is an obvious connection with the Witwatersrand landscape in South Africa, made toxic by mining, and this global scan of mining. To view the media content of this anti-pavilion one had to kneel before the pavilions of Britain and France and peer into the hollow of a surveyor’s peg. 800 images flashed past, detailing the consequences of all the digging that has enriched and, they argue, constructed Canada.

3. Annie Proulx

In the cold months, I tackled the thick tome that Annie Proulx published at the age of 80: “Barkskins”. Canada and Michigan are again sites of concern, now as the background to the felling of their forests and their inter-generational impact. It is through both the greed for extraction and the awareness of its consequences that lives and attitudes are produced in the process of deforestation.

“Barkskins” begins with the arrival of two French woodsmen in 1693, and ends in the present. I hugely appreciated Proulx’s meticulous historical research. Also her hard-bitten prose, which is filled with sudden deaths by accident and impoverished lives, as well as her guarded optimism that this devastation will somehow be halted, if not reversed through the survival of some innate and indigenous sense of resistance.

American author Annie Proulx. Peter Hanna/Reuters

4. Captain Fantastic

Forests, education and community also came out as the backdrop for “Captain Fantastic”, an appealing family drama that tells the story of a father having to reassess the Utopian life he has built for his six children. The film stimulated some decent discussion with my own son, who is at the end of his own secondary schooling, about the respective values of de-linking and self-educating – and perhaps decolonising – and the often compromised system of suburban schools.

The system that is promoted here learns by respecting the land, practising creativity, self building and having conversations based on classical and critical thought. The clarity around these positions is of course possible in a space of isolation, and it is in the tension between such idealism and the broader world that the drama places out.

5. Swartberg House

We will end the year with a visit to Jennifer Beningfield’s Swartberg House, which I already know through her drawings and photos. It is situated on the edge of the Great Karoo, a semi-arid region in the heart of South Africa. The background to the building is her PhD and then book on the literature of South African landscapes, “The Frightened Land”, which is mindful of the ethics of living on colonised territory. Her architectural response to the landscape, which is both material and conceptual, is a pure but nuanced white walled shelter with an incredibly calming interior.

It links to areas of planting, a pool and above all, the sky overhead. The idea of the house is a retreat, from which to simultaneously enjoy our privileged place in relation to the land, while rebuilding awareness though the phenomenological connection of how we are linked to the fragile system in which we pause, and through which we move.

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